Your Keys to Cuba
Our estranged Southern neighbor is more accessible than ever, with new flights taking off for Havana from major US cities and cruise lines incorporating Cuban ports into their Caribbean itineraries. Go now, before the crowds arrive
For What to Know Before You Go, See Slide 7
Ninety miles and exactly one hour was all it took to get from Miami to Cuba, yet the journey was nothing short of time travel.
I had a frantic urge to visit because I feared that the island could, at any moment and with no warning, be transformed like an enchanted carriage into just another Caribbean pumpkin.
For now, Cuba is still largely untouched by American influence, and, as I discovered on my 9-day journey, it’s every bit as enchanting as the guidebooks promise. Narrow streets are crowded with gleaming 1950s Ford Fairlanes and pristine Chevy Bel Airs. Colorful Art Deco and Colonial façades, though faded, seem to regain some lost splendor in the blazing white afternoon sun. And though the waterfront esplanade, the Malecón, is crumbling into the sea, it still comes alive each evening with locals who crowd the sea wall to sing, salsa and sip Cuba Libres (mixed with a Castro-approved Coca-Cola cousin, tuKola, of course).
Being there was like stumbling back half a century (especially after a mojito or two).I watched Cubans pack a bodega for monthly rations of rice and oil, and passed Che Guevara’s stylized silhouette over and over again. There was no WiFi, no credit cards, no cell phone service.
Although Cuba will certainly develop and change radically in the coming years, to me, the country will always be the taste of a mango plucked by a roadside, the aroma of sugarcane lingering in a valley, and the familiar refrain of "Guantanamera" played by a sidewalk guitarist.
Read on for our guide to this magical country.
Havana's grand hotels are a nod to Cuba's golden era, with jaw-dropping Art Deco and Spanish colonial architecture.
At the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, the country's landmark property, entire rooms are decorated floor-to-ceiling with the portraits of famous gangsters (Lucky Luciano) and glamorous starlets (Ava Gardner) who once smoked Monte Cristos at the bar.
Hotel Ambos Mundos is a coral-colored boutique downtown that Hemingway called home for seven years. His room, number 511, remains preserved like a small museum. Ride the old-school elevator to the rooftop terrace where live music plays nightly and the retro cocktails are out of this world.
Presiding over Havana's Central Park is the Hotel Parque Central, a grande dame where almost every room has a private terrace. Go for a dip in one of the twin rooftop pools or just lounge in the sun-filled lobby.
After a top-to-bottom reno in 2005, Hotel Saratoga is one of the city's more contemporary sleeps, with its poppy red, blue and purple accents, Cuban tile floors, high ceilings and rooftop poolside bar, which looks out over the Caribbean.
The 18th-century Hotel Santa Isabel, on the cobblestone Plaza de Armas once played host to Jimmy Carter. In the grand lobby, guests gather under sparkling crystal chandeliers and in the sunny atrium, or sip cocktails on the veranda behind a row of ornate columns.
Drink and Dine
Havana's posh Miramar neighborhood is your best best for authentic, high-end restaurants, especially privately owned paladares. You’ll need a reservation to snag a seat on the breezy balcony of Café Laurent, where romantic evenings are shared over bowls of lobster and avocado gazpacho and skewers of grilled lobster and shrimp.
Travelers tracing Ernest Hemingway's cocktail trail will want to try his signature daiquiri (maraschino liqueur, lemon juice and grapefruit juice blended with ice and two shots of rum) at El Floridita . The moody low-lit bar transports you to another time and place.
Don't be put off by the no-frills exterior: La Guarida is considered one of the best tables in the country. Order the snapper carpaccio, malanga gnocchi or the house specialty, honey lemon chicken.
For a caffeine jolt, try a rum-spiked frozen coffee from Café Escorial in Plaza Vieja, and pick up a bag of beans, roasted on-site, to enjoy after you return home.
Buy Cuban Art
Cuban artist Jose Fuster's iconic painted tiles and mosaics have transformed his house, Fusterlandia into a glittering ceramic wonderland, and they're rapidly working their way across the neighborhood, Jaimanitas. The best souvenir is a tile bought right off the wall.
An old cooking oil factory has recently been turned into a shrine for multimedia art called La Fábrica de Arte Cubano. Cuba's creatives flock here for ultratrendy drinks, art and photography exhibitions and live performances and film screenings.
The harborside warehouse Centro Cultural Antiguos Almacenes San José was built in 1885 and has, along with exhibitions and theatrical performances, some of Cuba's most beautiful artisanal crafts and artworks.
Get Down to Live Music
On Sundays along Callejón de Hamel, you can catch an impromptu street rhumba, dedicated to the Afro-Cuban religion of Santería.
Don't miss the salsa pros in action at the famed Tropicana, an electric, flashy cabaret that will leave you spinning, thanks to the sparkling costumes and free bottles of Havana Club rum that come with your ticket.
Immerse Yourself in the Culture
Get your camera ready for a trip to Morro Castle, a 16th-century Spanish fort that looks out over Havana's colorful rooftops (the best way to get there is in a vintage taxi).
Hire a guide to take you through the Colon Cemetery, one of the world's largest, at 140 acres. The ornate mausoleums and chapels pay homage to some of the most beloved figures in Cuban history: President Jose Gomez and musician Ibrahim Ferrer, to name two.
On any given day you can learn about current Cuban issues and culture at Esquina Caliente (the "Hot Corner"). Local men gather around a shady section of Central Park to argue politics and baseball, Cuba's most popular sport.
Explore Beyond Havana
Head Southeast to Trinidad, a charming Spanish colonial town best known for its honey and rum cancháncharas and hand-embroidered linens. You can scale the steep spiral staircase of the Museo Historico Municipal, a stunning canary-yellow 1800s mansion, for 360-degree views of the city and surrounding valleys.
On Cuba's southern coast is the small city of Cienfuegos, where you can watch a dance performance or concert beneath the vaulted painted ceiling of Teatro Tomás Terry and stroll through fragrant botanical gardens.
In the north-central part of Cuba is the lush Vinales Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Among the highlights there: the Museo Municipal, the Casa de Caridad Botanical Gardens and the nearby caves (Cueva del Indio, Cueva de José Miguel, Cueva de Santo Tomás) in Valle de Viñales National Park.
Catch up on your history two hours south of Havana at the Bay of Pigs Museum, then go for a bike ride along the nearby beaches of Playa Larga and Playa Giron.
If you'd rather stay close to the capital, spend an afternoon at Finca Vigía, Hemingway's farm home for more than two decades before the revolution. Everything here is exactly as the author left it, including the 9,000 books and fully stocked bar.
What to know Before You Go
In January 2015, President Barack Obama expanded authorized travel to Cuba. What this means: U.S. citizens can legally go if they're involved in an organized activity (taking an educational tour, attending an athletic event or working on a humanitarian project, for example). Access will likely expand to all Americans tourists in the upcoming years (though entry restrictions now aren’t strictly enforced).
There are multiple daily flights from Miami and new flights being added on big carriers like American and JetBlue from Tampa, Orlando and New York. But seats still must be booked through third-party charter companies. Airlines won't be able to sell tickets directly until a new civil aviation agreement is reached between the two countries.
An optimal way to explore Cuba now is with an organized tour. Some reputable travel companies: Access Trips, Insight Cuba (which just launched a small ship cruise), Geo Ex, National Geographic Expeditions, Abercrombie and Kent, and Classic Journeys.
Be prepared to go off the grid. Cuba does not accept American credit cards, there's almost no WiFi, and forget about using your cell phone.
The country is very safe, but that doesn't mean it's crime-free. Take the same precautions you would for any trip. Don't wear showy jewelry, avoid walking alone at night and skip unlicensed taxis. Petty theft does exist, so be alert with your money.